So I’ve been reading a really horrifying collection of short stories called Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock. If you feel like being depressed beyond measure by the lengths people in small, desolate towns will go just to get from one day to the next, by all means, pick it up.
In truth, I’ve been reading this collection for a little while now. I’ll tackle a few stories in succession before I’ll become exhausted emotionally and mentally. Then I’ll have to take a break for a bit.
Most of them are about drugs in one way or another, but Pollock doesn’t discriminate: he touches on every flavor of depravity that I know of (and honestly, quite a few I didn’t know of – the kinds of things that now he’s made me aware exist are difficult to get out of my mind).
Here are some sample first sentences in the Knockenstiff collection, just to give you an idea of what I’ve been going through. I tried to select stories without profanity in the very first sentence, which was difficult.
- “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old.” (from Real Life)
- “When people in town said inbred, what they really meant was lonely.” (from Hair’s Fate)
- “I’d been staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole.” (from Bactine)
- “Half the time now the only thing crawling around in Howard Bowman’s worn-out head is that four-letter word, the one swear his wife no longer allows in the house.” (from Honolulu)
You get the idea. Apparently there’s even a name for this genre. Wait for it … it’s called ”Hick Lit.”
These stories are raw. They’re about real life, or at least a version of life I get the sense Pollock’s spent considerable time around. I understand many of them were written as assignments for the MFA he earned from Ohio State University in 2009, after spending 32 years working in a paper mill in Ohio, not far from Knockemstiff. (Yep, you read that right, Knockemstiff is an actual place in Southern Ohio).
Meanwhile, a few other things are going on that make me feel the short story is in the air.
Though I’m supposed to be finishing up the latest revision of my novel (I’m working on it, promise), I’ve been writing a short story of my own on and off. See, what happens to me is when I get hit with an idea that I know is the size and shape of a short story, I can’t seem to get it out of my head until I actually write the darn thing. Short stories are like flashbulbs of inspiration – as if a bright light went off in front of me and now the residual image is burned onto my brain. The only way to rid myself of it is to write it down.
Meanwhile, Ann Kingman, co-host of one my favorite podcasts, Books on the Nightstand, has declared this “The Year of the Short Story.” She’s trying to read one story per day and is tracking her progress through entries on a page titled “Project Short Story.”
And the other day I heard this really great podcast from Selected Shorts with Neil Gaiman, Stephen Colbert and Leonard Nimoy. Gaiman served as host, introducing Colbert reading a story by Ray Bradbury (The Veldt) and Nimoy reading one from James Thurber (The Catbird Seat). Both were excellently written and performed. In his introduction, Mr. Gaiman had this to say about the short story:
Short fiction is like close-up magic. You look, you try and figure out how it’s done. All the pieces are laid out in front of you. And then suddenly it wraps up in a way you weren’t expecting or in a perfectly satisfying way.
On the same day, the most recent issue of Esquire winged its way through the electrons to my kindle and within I found an article titled “In Celebration of the Short Story” by Benjamin Percy. Mr. Percy describes the short story this way:
A short story is a red-faced sprint. A short story is a one-night stand you’ll remember years later in the shower or on a two-lane country highway. A short story is a precisely cut diamond. A short story is a glimpse – like the flash and buzz of a hummingbird – that stills your breath with its beauty. A short story, because it is short, can forgivably push boundaries, take risks. A short story attends to language in a gymnastic way that would exhaust any reader past twenty pages. A short story is impressionistic. A short story is a shot of whiskey, a snort of cocaine, a hand on a hot stove. A short story demands strenuous attention, supplying only the most essential components of character and narrative, asking the reader to infer the rest.
A short story can be perfect…
So there you have it. Short stories seem to be everywhere. And, apparently, they can be perfect.
I’d better get back to work on mine. If only to get it out of my head.